Welcome to the world of PR – and how the ‘dark side’ really can be very dark

‘So you’re off to the dark side?’ That was the joking Star Wars-style refrain from a few of my colleagues and friends as I swapped a 25-year career in print and online journalism for PR and communications.

Upon my arrival as a ‘fresh-faced’ account director, the first thing I was told to beware what’s known as The Power Shift. Supposedly this is something journalists find hard to handle when they enter the world of public relations.

The Power Shift represents the face fact that you no longer have the ability to set the agenda or dictate the line of the story (something writers enjoy doing even more now that sub-editors are fast becoming a thing of the past in modern-day news gathering and dissemination).

Morrison Media’s Philip Gates

Now the power is in the hands of the client. We the humble account directors and executives dancing dance to their tune. However, despite the Power Shift, the control public relations has in the court of public opinion is arguably just as strong.

One recent article brought into sharp focus claims of that Power Shift, and made reference to a ‘dark side’ less Star Wars – and also for me, the new kid on the block, less amusing.

The Huffington Post revealed how the oil industry has led from the front when it comes to paying public relations and advertising firms to influence what the public made of their industry.

That ‘leading from the front’ involved spending at least $1.4 billion from 2008 to 2017, in data compiled by the not-for-profit Climate Investigations Centre.

The data, the Huff Post was told by the centre’s Kert Davies, provided a “tiny peephole into the massive influence-peddling industry that hovers over Washington DC and indeed the whole country”. It added: “And the oil industry leads the pack by a mile.”

Just, as the politicians say, to be clear. This is not lobbying. The data found that nearly twice as much was spent on PR and advertising than lobbying. This was a big bucks way of influencing public opinion on the ‘benefits’ of fossil fuels by muddying the waters against climate change.

And the bucks were big. The American Petroleum Institute, the trade association of the oil and natural gas industry, spent an incredible $663 million on PR and advertising – 48% of the overall total.
They hired Chicago-based PR giant Edelman and one of its extensive campaigns was a fake grassroots movement called ‘Energy Citizens’ launched in 2009.

Before the 2012 election there was a national advertising campaign entitled I’m An Energy Voter which featured so-called everyday Americans calling for more domestic oil and gas production.

It was rumbled by an activist from Greenpeace, and Edelman later had to defend its own reputation by publishing on its website that it wasn’t a climate change denier not that it conducted PR for others whose aim was to deny climate change.

Surely the public can see through it for what it is? Perhaps not. That’s the beauty of a good PR/advertising campaign. Done very well, it can be very persuasive. Think Nike and its Colin Kaepernick ‘Believe In Something Even If It’s Sacrificing Everything’ advert. That ad helped frame the news agenda for quite a while.

But in the pursuit of business, and keeping a client happy, boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed can be crossed. That’s something journalists are constantly reminded of. And it’s something people new to PR, like me, have to remember too.

Philip Gates is account director at Morrison Media Strategies, 177 West George Street, Glasgow

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